Centering Justice in Legal Education Reform Discourse

Thanks to Mary Lynch for inviting me to post on this blog about my essay, Deep Critique and Democratic Lawyering in Clinical Practice, which was published in February by California Law Review. Over the course of my work on the essay over a few years, I have come to ask three main questions:

(1) How does the justice-seeking mission of clinical education persist in the face of the rapid expansion of experiential education and the imminent retirement of many of the founders of modern clinical education?

(2) Is there a progressive clinical response to the crisis of legal education in the aftermath of the great recession of 2008?

(3) How can legal educators preserve the public interest, justice-seeking values of the legal profession in the face of contraction, commodification, automation, and outsourcing?

The questions have gotten harder to answer as time has passed, as the post-Carnegie period of experiential expansion fell way to the economic crisis and then to the cyclical and structural breakdown of the market for legal services and the subsequent collapse of the markets for post-graduate employment and law school admissions. Initially, during the short expansionary period, my thought was that justice-oriented clinicians had to engage in the pedagogical excavation of their own work in order to defend it and to claim a share of the resources being allocated by law school administrators. The standard litany of clinical skills is incomplete and tends to favor an attenuated form of clinical practice that prevents clinics from participating in urgent struggles for social and economic justice ongoing in all of our communities. Both non-strategic individual service and private business-oriented clinical models take clinics out of community struggle and place them in service of a conservative political posture that has been maintained by law schools for many years. These approaches also subdue and suppress the justice aspirations of our students.

The necessity for lawyers to think structurally, suggested by Gary Blasi and further supported by Nisha Agarwal and Jocelyn Simonson in their survey of critical theoretical work, suggested to me the idea of “deep critique.” We want our students to think structurally, but how can we begin to think with them outside of what seems currently possible? As we see repeatedly in many areas of struggle, from police

devin allen

Photo credit: Devin Allen

violence to low-wage worker exploitation, liberal legalism doesn’t get us very far. We can teach our students that law is incomplete and inadequate as the sole response to various social crises. But how can we begin to consider responses outside of the liberal legal imaginary? In my experience, organizers have been the ones who have helped me to see both the value of the legal tools that we train our students to use and their use in moving us toward new worlds. I wanted to capture this quality of deep structural thinking that we aspire to develop with our students, hence, “deep critique.”

The second feature of complex, justice-seeking clinical practice that I thought worth bringing to the surface was easier to describe because of the prior synthetic work of Ascanio Piomelli. Piomelli draws from a wide range of poverty lawyering and critical theoretical sources to define a form that he calls “Democratic Lawyering.” Many clinicians have thought hard about the role of the lawyer in community. Democratic lawyering has stuck with me because of its central animating idea that lawyers may serve to support grassroots collectives in politics and to help them convert their political ideals and aspirations into political struggle in various realms, including protest, electoral politics, and policy and legislation. This was a second quality encompassing a fairly broad skill set that I believe should be added to the list of teaching goals to which legal educators gravitate.

The economic crisis and the subsequent challenges to the legal profession and legal education necessitate further consideration. Although clinicians have a great deal more security now than at any time in the past and clinics are seen as core curricular offerings at many law schools, the perception that clinical education is an expensive luxury is entrenched within legal education, especially when budgets are being shrunk. Bob Kuehn has taken this argument apart. However, it seems essential to me that clinicians go further and articulate an affirmative vision of reform that centers entrenched social problems and clinical practice as the core generators of contemporary legal education. Scholars such as William Henderson and Brian Tamanaha have made a significant impact on the discourse with their reform proposals, which largely make clinical education marginal and, to varying degrees, accept the breakdown of the legal profession as a given. Neither of their reform visions contemplate how legal education might preserve and advance the public, justice-seeking values of the profession. There is little contemplation in these largely neoliberal approaches to higher education of a professional exercising independent judgment in the performance of their duties to clients and the public. In an otherwise highly insightful book, progressive scholar Robin West views clinical education as actually setting back the agenda of critical legal analysis. Clinicians’ views are often dismissed as being focused on status; we are, therefore, burdened with an extra responsibility to lay an intellectual foundation for the centering of clinical practice in legal education.

My essay flags these challenges in the legal education reform discourse, without providing a comprehensive response. In many ways, it is a call to legal educators to begin to articulate reform visions from the standpoint of our client communities and our idealistic students. In the context of unprecedented social movement activity in the United States, it is incumbent on teachers to think creatively about how we might mobilize our educational institutions to support democratic engagement  and to think structurally outside of the box of liberal legalism. Legal educators must consider how we train law students and contribute to the construction of our evolving profession, one not solely defined by economic efficiency, but instead by core commitments to justice and the public good.

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One Response

  1. […] The root motivations and purposes of Deep Critique and Democratic Lawyering in Clinical Practice, published by California Law Review a few months ago, are noted here. […]

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